Sunday, 1 April 2012

What's in a Name? - Kara Walker's Titles



Kara Walker
Presenting Negro Scenes Drawn Upon My Passage Through the South and Reconfigured for the Benefit of Enlightened Audiences Wherever Such May Be Found, By Myself, Missus K. E. B. Walker, Colored. [Details]- 1997, Cut paper silhouettes; site-specific dimensions; Installed in The Renaissance Society


Kara Walker’s provocative works have been described as a kind of “…visual terrorism…”[1] as they conjure questions that delve into the deepest of sensibilities to reveal how the injustices of the antebellum South surface in her own context. Walker keeps the narratives in her tableaux open for interpretation, meaning often the ugliest of truths rise naturally. This allows Walker’s work to leap out of its colonial settings and reveal how little has changed. Her work manipulates the stereotype in its form, as the silhouette is used to simultaneously remove a personal identity and display a racially charged one. Walker comments on her use of the silhouette, revealing how it “…says a lot with very little information, but that’s also what the stereotype does …[2]” The themes in her work express an experience of the world from the view of the colonised and also with the unconscious repercussions of a colonial history using a macabre humour.

Walker’s titles are an important factor of her works. In an interview with Matthea Harvey, Walker describes the her images as a three ring circus[3], and the titles of her work as “…the sideshow act… (that) has its own agenda, which sometimes runs counter to the rage in the piece…[4]” The title of "Presenting Negro Scenes…"(read caption for full title) suggests the narrative format and theatrical presence of the works through the word ‘scenes’. Walkers’ work does not carry a linear narrative, but instead proffers small episodes or moments that happen side-by-side with no indication if they are occurring simultaneously or throughout time. The title also locates the work in the antebellum South. This act of situating the work within the Southern part of the United States influences the reading of the work and the characters of the slave, slave-owner and the often-hushed history of these personas become resonant in their silhouetted reincarnation. Walker is relieved of the notion that these vignettes are true historical recounts as she addresses that they are ‘Reconfigured’ in her title. She exhausts this freedom to exaggerate the ideas presented in the work through the hyperbolized scenes.

The audience is also defined in the title, insinuating that the work will only be able to be truly understood by ‘Enlightened Audiences Wherever Such May Be Found.’ This tongue-in-cheek addition to the title, that acts as a precursor, is reminiscent of the children’s fable The Emperor’s New Clothes in nature, as it outlines only an audience that can process the often-confronting imagery are to be benefited and enlightened. The idea put forward of the enlightened audience becomes even more deep-seated and ironic when considering that two years later Walker’s exhibition was pulled from the Detroit Institute of the Arts at the request of one of the Gallery’s oldest auxiliaries[5], the advisory group ‘Friends of African American Art’[6]. The last role that the title fulfills is characterizing the artist in a way that sets up binaries or a similarity depending on the ethnicity of the audience member. This act of labeling herself as ‘Colored’ also behaves as a signifier of the era that is seemingly depicted in her vignettes, whilst also making the work personal and significant to an artist creating work in contemporary times.


[1] Phillippe Vergne, “The Black Saint is the Sinner Lady,” Kara Walker: Compliment, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2007), p16
[2] Phillippe Vergne, “Foreword,” Kara Walker: Compliment, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2007), p1
[3] Matthea Harvey and Kara Walker, “Kara Walker,” BOMB, (Summer, 2007), p 79
[4] Ibid.
[5] Detroit Institute of Arts, Friends of American & African American Art, (Detroit Institute of Arts website: 2011)
[6] Hamza Walker, “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.” Witness To Her Art, (New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 2006), p278

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